James Moore: Less family silver – more of a car boot sale

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The Independent Online

It looks like great idea in principle – raise funds to plug the gaping hole in Britain's public finances by selling off state assets.

So roll up, roll up. The Dartford crossing, the Channel Tunnel rail link, the Student Loan Company, our 33 per cent stake in the uranium processing company Urenco and the Tote are on the block.

If that little list inspires a feeling of déjà vu, it's not surprising. The latter three have all been touted around before. In fact, ministers have been trying to dispose of the Tote almost since New Labour came into office. But every time the Government has looked close to getting the state-owned bookie off its hands, something has come along to scupper the deal.

Variously, we've seen the market going wrong, the EU raising objections, MPs with marginal majorities in the North-west fretting about job losses and, finally, the bidders saying it's just not worth very much.

The Government can probably weather the prospect of a million or so students getting antsy about the SLC going, but what about the wider public's reaction to the sell-off of the uranium, given the fears that ministers have carefully stoked about terrorism? And sales of infrastructure like the Chunnel and the crossing can all too easily generate a massive furore when their new owners start talking about price rises.

Therein lies the problem. The easy privatisations have all been done. So have a good deal of the not-so-easy ones. What you're left with is a ragtag assortment of sweeties, all of which have the potential to induce serious bouts of toothache.

Of course, the elephant in the room, the state-enterprise that might be worth a few quid to someone with the gumption to go in and sort it out, is currently off the agenda. It's called the Royal Mail.